A Rider’s Impressions

Written by Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos

The week of everyday practice went well, but we probably could have ridden it better. Though we got off to a non-start with some sketchy winter weather on the first day, we kicked it into gear on the second.

Practice, Day Three: Trish waiting on us (RRC, Mar 26 2017)

Preparing for a season is more than shaking off the rust and losing the bad habits picked up during the off-season. It is about riding with more precision and speed, but also with discipline. While we push ourselves to be better riders, we are careful not to push our horses too hard and ask them to do things they may not be ready to do. Horses, while they aim to please, they, too, need to ease back into the stepped-up pace and difficulty.

The note-taking has been thorough as have our back-and-forth discussions among ourselves and with Trish. She is quite pleased at how well we are riding, and how well our horses have responded to the increased tempo and practice. “You’re showing mid-season form. Can’t ask for anything more.” While her words are very complimentary, Trish knows we have areas that need some work and polishing.

It would be fair to say we accomplished most of the priorities we had set for ourselves. But, it wasn’t all practice. We had a chance to do a few trail rides despite the snow, fog, rain, and wind.

Tara leading the trail ride on a snowy Saturday morning (RRC, Apr 01 2017)

The last practice session of the week was riding the GP qualifier course from the 2016 Las Vegas Nationals. The aim was to ride a faster time than the best time cleanly. Trish had a new class of young, learn-to-ride students (age 5-7) watch our session. Afterwards, we did a Q&A period with the kids. They were great.

Deborah & Comet: in the start area of the GP practice course 1.50 m (RRC, Apr 01 2017)

About the author

Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos will be graduating from the University of Colorado in May (Class of 2017). She will graduate with an ACS certified Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2013.

She is the most decorated equestrian in Rustler Riding Club history, winning Rider of the Year, Horse of the Year and Regulator of the Year awards on multiple occasions. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Mr. Ed, Lilith and SAM: Secret Agent Man.

Riding Inside The Margins

Written by Deborah Anne Ramos

The heat and humidity had made for a stifling day. Other than a light morning workout, we had the day off from competing. We watched a few junior hunters ride their classes, but our main desire was staying cool and staying in the shade. The plan was to spray off the horses in the late afternoon then have a nice dinner in Des Moines later that evening.

In a semi-shady spot, we settled back to do some people and horse watching. We knew it would be a slow, lazy afternoon. While chatting about nothing in particular for an hour, the PA system came to life asking for the presence of the EMTs and the vet in the main hunter ring. Though it was a short walk from where we were sitting, we stayed put. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t good.

And, it wasn’t. A horse and rider down.

    *     *     *     *

Though it was hoped all would be well in a few minutes, every sense was saying it was a devastating moment. A moment that does not happen too often. We could see the main hunter ring was being cleared, and the audience moved away to another section of the horse park.  Tara understood it all too well.

Jasper: not far from Tara’s thoughts everyday (RRC, May 2004)

The rider, a newly-minted junior from Minnesota, walked past with tears streaming down her face along with her trainer and parents. Most ironic was that we had met and talked with the young rider the day before. She was so excited being at her first AA show, eagerly hoping to do well. Any 14 year old rider would be.

Within a half-hour, we flinched when we heard that sound. Dad didn’t flinch. The horse’s injury had to be most grievous.

  *     *     *     *

The accident had put a damper on the remainder of the day. Everything had an anti-climatic feel.

An early arrival at the horse barn the next morning, we had seen the junior and her parents already packing her gear to head home. They were also getting her other horse ready for travel. Tara walked over and chatted with them for almost 15 minutes. She encouraged the young rider to take her time in returning to the saddle. The saying of “quickly climbing back on the saddle” is easier said than done. And, probably longer to get back into the proper frame of mind to compete again.

They were appreciative of Tara coming over and talking with them. No other riders, except for us, had taken the time to see how they were doing. We wished them well, and hoped to see them once again under better circumstances.

  *     *     *     *

Though riders are noted for their mental and physical toughness, this type of accident is much different. How does one come back from this kind of experience? Not easily. Tara had her own experience, but says she is still very much a work in progress.

Mark told Tara, when she returned to riding, it was okay to be unsure. It will take time to rebuild the confidence – more riding would lead to more confidence. Of course, the most difficult part of her return was the mental part. Most unavoidable was the second guessing. Tara had to learn how to trust herself and to trust her skills again. The hardest part – Tara giving herself permission to be a rider again.

Tara & Cameron: GP Qualifier – 1.35 M (Texas, May 2014)

In the nearly thirteen years since her accident, the memories remain fresh in the back of her mind. If you watch Tara ride, now, you wouldn’t think she had an accident. Tara doesn’t hold back one bit. She rides fast and crisp, and can ride aggressive lines with ease. And, she is a very disciplined rider. Tara calls it “riding inside the margins”.

With those still lingering memories, Tara says it has made her into a better rider everyday – better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.

Brie: the one who brought Tara back (RRC, Oct 2014)

 

Postscript

We’ve chatted with the young rider from Minnesota, three times, since that day. She has resumed riding, the slow and easy kind, but is very uncertain about riding in competition again. She added, “I would not compete ever again. It’s an easy decision in that regard.”

 

About the author

Deborah Anne Ramos is a fifth-year senior attending the University of Colorado. She will be graduating this coming May with a BS in Biology (Animal Science). She graduated with highest honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2012.

A highly decorated equestrian with the Rustler Riding Club, Deborah has earned Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year awards with the club. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Comet, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman, and SAM: Secret Agent Man.

“Ride now, ride forever”

Inside The Nationals

“A horse will do anything its rider will ask of it. Not every talented rider will earn an appearance at a national horse show or world cup competition. A rider needs more than talent, drive, dedication, discipline and resources to reach that level. They need those intangibles that takes them to the next level as a rider.”

It is a teaching point Mark and Trish instruct their riding students, regardless of level, in their hunter program. Before reaching that point, every student must learn a skill set featuring strong, sound fundamentals in horsemanship. It is learning to ride and learning to understand a horse – how it thinks, actions and reactions, its response to pressure and stress, and learning its physical limitations. Learn and know all of this, and more, along with knowing how to properly care for one, it is the first step in becoming a true rider.

A national horse show is the one show a rider simply cannot add to their calendar.  Earning a slot in a national is a recognition in the level of riding. Simply, a rider needs a body of work in riding excellence. It is more than a history of riding in AA rated shows and winning blue and red ribbons. It is more than rankings. Equitation matters, consistency matters, and competitiveness matters. Outside the show ring, it is the work in the off-season and preparing for a new season, practice sessions between shows and at shows, and the work off-saddle. It is a commitment to a work ethic, and always working to improve show after show and year over year.

Las Vegas Nationals: the hotel-casino side of the South Point

For five days in November, Las Vegas loses its “Sin City” moniker, replaced by “Show Jump City“. The South Point Equestrian Center becomes the center of the horse world and the FEI World Cup tour in North America. In the local sports, it is the lead story. Names of riders, only known in the jumping world, are mentioned in the same breath with top athletes from other sports.

8:00 pm Saturday, Nov 19

The most anticipated event of the Las Vegas Nationals was almost ready to begin – the FEI Longines World Cup Grand Prix. The field consisted of 33 World Cup jumpers and 7 riders from the USA horse show circuit, all qualified by their finish in the Welcome Jumper Speed Classic held two nights earlier. In the filled arena, the atmosphere and the anticipation was absolutely electric. A few of the top riders have been interviewed about their chances and what it would mean to win the marquee event. They all agree it will be a challenging event. Adding to the challenge, the course design by Guilherme Jorge. Having designed the jumper courses in Rio, he is known for his technically demanding but fair courses.

Though many of the riders are from the USA, it is truly an international field with riders from the UK, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. It is a mix of Olympic riders, seasoned professionals, hot-shots and rookies. If there is one trait the entire field shares, it is their high level of confidence. It is the one sport which each rider knows the field of competition is even, that anyone can win the event.

horse barn: our neighbors from North Carolina

Among the rookies are my three girls, four others from the USA horse show circuit, and four mid-season entrants making their first appearance on the World Cup tour. The rookie group was told they will not appear in the final, official results unless it is a top-ten finish. It is an oddity within the FEI rulebook fine print in how points are awarded and rankings are ordered. Within the rookie group, it is not much of a concern since riding in the marquee event is a reward in itself.

While the stage is larger, the expectations greater, the aim was to treat this event, this ride, like any other event. Each rider goes through their normal routines. Those riding in the top half of the draw were warming up in the arena next door while the Parade of Nations and other pre-event festivities unfolded. The background music ends, a hush settles on the audience, the PA announcer begins his introduction of the event.

A Call to Ride

The first five riders are called. Tara, riding fourth, is ready with her bay, Cameron. A little nervous as always, but with a squeeze of her hand she flashes a smile. They are led down the tunnel to the holding area just off the arena floor. The first rider of the event proceeds directly to the “hole”, the location just before heading into the start area and the in-gate. When its her turn in the hole, Tara mounts up. She is all business. The smiles are gone, the slight nervousness is gone. Her aim, be the leader going into the intermission as the top half of the draw finishes. It is a tall order, but achievable.

Riding into the start area, Tara whispers words of sweetness into Cameron’s left ear. It is a breathtaking, surreal moment. The arena is SRO full, with the scoreboards showing a live close-up of her face and that of Cameron. Below it, her competition number, name and country – 389 Westin, Tara Scott USA. The overhead scoreboard shows the ranking for the event. The first three riders occupy first, second and third place. Places four through eight are blank. The PA announcer, reading her formal introduction and giving Cameron’s formal name, Tara has tuned out everything as she awaits the signal that she may start.

She and Cameron starts. Tara’s eyes are already focused on fence #4 as they clear fence #1. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Clearing fence #16, they have a clean ride. It is polite applause from the audience. When Tara’s time flashes on the scoreboard, a few cheers are added to the applause. It is 72.19 seconds, nearly three seconds ahead of the now second-place rider. She has turned heads. Tara knows many more riders are yet to come. It is a course that can be completed in the 72 second range when the girls did their walkthrough earlier in the evening. In riding the course, Tara has learned a few “tells”, information she hopes to relay to Elizabeth and Deborah.

A waiting game, Tara begins to check off names. Two riders are DNF, one retire. Through 12 riders, her time is holding up. Though her nearly three-second lead is being chipped away, the audience is wondering if Tara, a little known rider, has opened the door to an upset in the making. Still waiting in the wings are Elizabeth and Deborah, with Elizabeth scheduled as the second to last rider before intermission. A very sharp WC rider takes the lead at 72.11 seconds.

Two riders later, it is now Elizabeth in the start area. Scantly studying the overhead scoreboard, she has tuned everything out. Her eyes are a study in concentration. Lilith is ready to go. Elizabeth strokes Lilith’s neck to calm her down. A timer issue is causing a delay, but wasn’t too long. They receive their signal they may start.

Elizabeth and Lilith: making 1.50 m jumps an optical illusion

Fast out of the in-gate, Elizabeth quickly clears Lilith over fence #1. With information from Tara, Elizabeth is setting an aggressive riding line by looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear, fence #5 clear. A few of the other WC riders have taken notice of Elizabeth’s aggressive riding line. She has ridden the course cleanly with Lilith in near-perfect rhythm. The audience is enjoying clean ride after clean ride. When Elizabeth’s time of 71.78 is posted, a rousing round of cheers follow. If this was a baseball game, Elizabeth would have to come out and doff her hat. What she has done is lay down a challenge to the riders yet to come.

Building Anticipation –

During the intermission, the warm-up arena is busy. The first ten riders of the second half of the draw are slowly walking their horses. In the show arena, the excitement is building in the stands. They know the best riders are yet to come, many competitive in this branch of the WC tour. For the moment, Elizabeth is first and Tara is third. A couple of riders complimented Elizabeth and Tara for riding well. The usual questions are asked: where they’re from, whom are they training with, how long they’ve been riding, and do they plan to ride internationally or on the WC tour in North America. Naturally, they ask how good is Deborah. Both say she is very good.

With intermission finishing, the call for the first five riders is given. Leading off this group is Deborah. Every rider following her is a top-tier rider. In the hole, Deborah is boosted up onto her champion, Comet. Riding into the start area, Deborah scans the course. Her expression, pretty but icy.

Like Elizabeth, Deborah is fast out of the in-gate and clears fence #1. She is riding the same aggressive line and looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Coming out of fence #5, a slight bauble but they’re fine. Deborah finishes the course cleanly. She has a feeling the bauble at fence #5 cost them precious time. When her time of 71.73 is posted, Deborah is amazed. Back in the warm-up arena, Elizabeth and Tara high-fives her.

The top riders follow. They are the ones the audience have come to see. The next rider betters Deborah’s 71.73. In the unofficial results, Deborah finished 12th, Elizabeth tied 14th and Tara 16th.

The Mixer

It is well past 11:00 pm, but in true Las Vegas style, a late-night mixer among the riders and fans of the World Cup tour follows. The riders of the moment are the top five finishers – Christian Heineking (GER), Enrique Gonzales (MEX), Tina Yates (USA), Jamie Barge (USA) and Hanna Mauritzson (SWE). The mixer is a little networking, a little socializing and plenty of horse talk.

Autographs are exchanged, including some fans asking for autographs from my girls. They loved seeing them ride so well, and holding their own against the more experienced professionals. When asked if they’ll be riding at the WC level anytime soon, they reply it would be a while, noting plenty of work and gaining experience still needs to be done.

Many of the conversations among the riders are one of mutual respect and admiration. Conversing with my daughters, the more experienced riders were very complimentary of their talent and potential. They encouraged them to stay with their plan and timetable in gaining experience and polishing their skill set.

The best compliment – they belong.

Beginnings

And, it began here …

Deborah visiting with her Auntie Bella’s Ranger Man (Jul 2000)

 

Their love of horses led them into the hunter sport.

Deborah (330) and Elizabeth (183) with their first ribbons won at a club level horse show (Jul 2003)

 

The ribbons are nice. The shows are fun. Their love of horses is enduring.

Deborah, 16, with her champion, Comet (Aug 2010)

 

Elizabeth, 20, with her lovely Lilith (Sep 2015)

 

Embarking on their 2016 season today, my daughters will begin again in Texas.

 

About the photos

All four photos were taken using a Canon FTb 35-mm SLR. The first two photos were made using Kodak T-MAX Professional 100 and the latter two with Kodak Gold (ASA 200).

Inside The Arena

The next rider and horse are introduced. There are a few cheers and shouts, some polite applause. The butterflies experienced while waiting are gone. The moment, the atmosphere, is quite electric. Both rider and horse are focused. A few seconds later, they start the course. The aim is a clean ride, no rails down, with the best time.

Before the ride is the more interesting part. Each rider has their routine. Some will go through visualization exercises, others will watch everything around them. A few will seem to be unaffected. The horses, they seem to be unfazed by it all.

NWSS 2016 – Secret Agent Man (left) and Comet (right) meet one another as Elizabeth and Deborah ride them to the warm-up area

 

NWSS 2016 – Deborah studies her crib sheet on the course layout

 

NWSS 2016 – Tara and Brie await their turn near the start area

 

While much of the riding season is done outdoors, riding an indoor venue has certain challenges. Many indoor venues have seating that brings their audience close to the action. It can cause sensory issues for horses. It is part visual and part auditory. Since horses do not see stereoscopically, their depth of field view is shallow when both eyes are focused in the same direction. They may perceive the audience as being closer than they actually are. The auditory aspect is that sound does not disperse quickly indoors, and most indoor venues are quite live.

With horses and riders having limited indoor experience, the challenges can quickly become issues. Horses that are normally calm in outdoor venues can become more skittish indoors, poorly processing the flood of sensory input. Riders, including experienced ones, can misinterpret the skittishness displayed by their mounts as pent-up energy. This is where a rider needs to thoroughly understand and be knowledgeable of their horse. If not, there is a good chance their competition ride will be ragged at best. Lilith is the one who becomes difficult in an indoor arena. Elizabeth can usually calm her with some gentle strokes on her neck. If Lilith doesn’t settle, Elizabeth gives her more rein to lessen Lilith’s anxiety. In the end, it is all about trust between horse and rider. It has to be unbreakable.

Las Vegas National GP 2015 – trusting Secret Agent Man completely, Elizabeth gives him as much rein he wants

 

Indoors or outdoors, winning ribbons, a top five finish, an oversized cardboard check are nice to have. However, nothing is better than a smiling rider and a smiling horse.

after the blue ribbon: Elizabeth and Lilith (San Juan Capistrano, Jun 2014)

 

Making Of A Champion

Other installments in this series:

Second Nature: Of Synchronicity and Perfection

[This is the third part of a special series, “Making of A Champion”, contributed by my equestrian daughters. This post is by my daughter, Deborah.]

Comet stood ready. His attention, undivided. Determination in his eyes.

Comet, waiting in the start area (Texas, May 2014)

 

Victory was in reach for my champion. The leader’s time was not insurmountable. Only a strong, steady ride was needed to take the lead. Comet’s power was smooth and easy. His focus was my focus. I trusted Comet to run the course his way. I relaxed his reins more. His synchronicity was absolute perfection, clearing every fence in stride. With time seemingly standing still, our ride is over. My champion has proven his heart again. Our time is flashed on the scoreboard. We vault into the lead with our respectable 57.84/0 fault ride. The time limit on the course was 59.65.

*     *     *

With our season beginning next week, our remaining practice sessions are tightly focused. Our tempo, fast. Our skills, razor sharp. Our goal for the first show is rather modest, to have a good overall start to our season. A win, or two, though nice, is not a priority. Having strong, consistent rides are more important. It is the hallmark of our training from Mark and Trish, our coaches. By riding to our strengths, it places our horses and ourselves in the best position to be competitive and successful.

In riding to our strengths, it is understanding the abilities of our horses. We know, absolutely, everything about them. What they can and cannot do. How they think. How they react. What is their first instinct in a stressful, or pressure-filled, situation. Though a rider learns much about their horse in the first 6-12 months of being together, the learning process between horse and rider is always ongoing. In discovering new strengths, and, yes, new weaknesses, in each other, our riding becomes instinctive. We are able to anticipate each other’s actions and reactions. We are able to depend upon one another in every situation. It is to make every movement made, inside and outside the show ring, like second nature. The last thing any rider wants, especially in equine sports, is to think through the process of riding.

Though we approach our practice sessions in a workmanlike manner, we try to keep it relaxed as much as possible. Occasionally, we can become competitive if one of us posts a fast time on a practice course. The relaxed atmosphere allows us to minimize the pressure we place on ourselves. It also allows us to help each other in our individual preparations.

The off-saddle work is equally important. Much of it involves watching plenty of video of our own practice and competition sessions. We may watch the video of a single practice session over and over again, replaying segments multiple times. Throughout this process, we fill our legal pads with notes. This is in addition to the notes we have made during practice. We also pour over the dozens of digital images our dad takes. When we compare our notes and observations, it gives us a solid, invaluable base of information to draw upon.

At a horse show, however, our video review process is more streamlined. Obviously, we don’t have as much time to devote in breaking down our rides. It does give us a sense of how well we are riding. If things seem not to be going well, sending the video, along with our thoughts, to Mark and Trish for an analysis has always helped. Much of the time, they can easily see what we are missing. At the same time, they offer words of reassurance, that we are doing well and to trust our instincts.

Our thoroughness, and attention to detail, in our practice sessions and other preparations does not guarantee a top finish. The best it does is to help us be prepared. It helps us to be consistent in our riding.

*     *     *

Elizabeth, with Lilith, in the start area, flashes a smile. We touch fingers as we ride past. They know we’ve turned in a solid ride. Perhaps one with an insurmountable lead. Time to wait, but not for long.

with Lilith in the show ring, Comet watches and waits (Texas, May 2014)

 

Our lead holds. Elizabeth and Lilith finishes with a 57.86/0 fault ride. Our narrow lead over Elizabeth and Lilith continues as the draw winds down to the last rider. It’s Megan, our friend and former mentor, with her handsome Viceroy. Tara has nervously watched and waited with us. Megan and Viceroy are poetry in motion. They, too, have turned in a beautiful, solid ride. A winning ride.

 

About the author

Deborah Anne Ramos is a junior attending the University of Colorado. Her degree studies is in the field of biology, specifically animal science. She graduated with highest honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2012.

She is a highly decorated equestrian with the Rustler Riding Club, earning Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year awards. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Comet and Captain Andrew Evan Stedman.

 

Making of A Champion

Other installments in this series:

Riding Lessons: Lessons On Life

 

[This is the second part of a special series, “Making of A Champion”, contributed by my equestrian daughters. This post is by my daughter, Tara.]

I love horses. I love to ride horses. I live to ride horses.

I rode my first Grand Prix event when I was 15. On the road, for the first time, in California. With mom by my side, I was so nervous. Would I remember what to do? “There is so much more to riding than anyone can imagine” was the thought swirling in my head. And, riding a horse I had only met the day before added to the nerves. My coaches, Mark and Trish, thought I was ready. I was one of their fast risers in the junior ranks, along with my best friends and teammates, Deborah and Elizabeth. Mark and Trish always said, “Just have fun, take in the moment. Make it no different from a practice session.” The time came to warm-up Winter. I hugged mom tightly. She reminded me to breathe rhythmically. Mom’s calming presence was ever so reassuring.

With the better, experienced riders still to come, Winter and I led at the halfway point in the draw. In the end, we finished a solid fifth place. One of the better, experienced riders said for me to keep up with the good work. He said I had enormous potential to be a very dominant rider. “You had me, and some of the others, ready to toss in the towel. A two-second, zero-fault lead over the field is like two hours.” Though I didn’t think the better riders would drop out of the event, it was a high compliment, nonetheless, about the work I had done to reach that point.

I thought my wish to ride a horse, any horse, would fall to the wayside. Mom was very busy at work, her time a precious commodity. Much to my surprise, we drove out to the “country” on my seventh birthday. It wasn’t a fancy place. The Rustler Riding Club consisted of a couple of horse barns, a few outbuildings, and a home under construction. The learn-to-ride programs were their mainstay, along with a little sports (mostly barrel racing) and lots of riding. Even mom signed up for a learn-to-ride lesson with some of the other parents. I was a bit scared, for a few minutes, but there were two giggly girls in my class. I discovered later those giggly girls were Deborah and Elizabeth. They made the six, learn-to-ride lessons a lot of fun. When we finished the course, each of us received a certificate along with a blue ribbon. It meant we learned the “basics of the basics”.

Very happy with my certificate, mom asked what I would think if I wanted to take more riding lessons. My smile was a dead giveaway. I was very excited. “Super, super excited,” as I would have said then. The next set of classes was more riding with some basic fundamentals of horsemanship mixed in. Though I hoped to see the giggly girls again, I didn’t see them. That was okay. It meant I had more horses to choose from for the lessons. About halfway through this second course, Mark and Trish talked with mom. While it seemed serious at first, there was plenty of smiling by the end. They said I had a natural affinity, a natural ability, with horses, and that I would benefit in being in a new class they were putting together. The new class would be a tailored riding program taking advantage of our individual skills, with Trish working with each of us separately.

It was in the tailored program where I really learned how to ride. It was strong in horsemanship fundamentals, learning to be a disciplined rider, and understanding the horse part of the riding equation. Developing competitive riders, whether it be a barrel racer or a hunter/jumper, was not the aim of the tailored program. On the contrary, Mark and Trish were very selective in who they coached in barrel racing or hunter/jumper. They referred many to other coaches and riding schools. Those they did instruct and coach had to be coachable. Trish, a decorated hunter/jumper from North Carolina, had seen too many riders become frustrated during their course of instruction and abandon their horses for whatever reason. Both believe not every rider, not every horse, is suited for equine sports regardless how much coaching and training, including from the best, is given.

When I finished the tailored program, Mark and Trish had a long conversation with mom about where I wanted to be in terms of horse riding. If it was to be a casual or a trail rider, I was already there. If I’d wanted to be in equine sports, such as barrel racing or hunter/jumper, there was a way to go in learning. Pursuing the sports path, however, would have to be my decision. After a couple of weeks of “I don’t know”, I decided to give barrel racing a try. Mom asked Mark and Trish if I could stay with them. “We’d love to have her” was their answer.

Over the next three years, it was learning much of what I thought I learned in the tailored program. It was all about having strong fundamentals, understanding the nature of horses, and how to forge strong bonds with horses. I was learning what Mark and Trish knew instinctively about horses. It was learning the very essence of horses. I spent as much time, if not more, off saddle as on saddle. If I was not competitive enough over the long-term, at least I would be a decent horsewoman.

Jasper, May 2004

 

At long last, the day when I would make my barrel racing debut arrived, Saturday, June 12, 2004. I was excited and nervous. I had been riding a beautiful paint named Jasper since the start of the year. Mark had bought him at an auction with the intent of making him an instructional horse. Jasper and I had clicked the day we met. We rode fast, we rode easy. “Keep him easy,” was Mark’s instruction. There was no need to ride fast. The ride seemed effortless, it was liked gliding. In sync as we were, Jasper began to labor. I dialed back his speed. The final turn and the ride for home was coming none too soon.

Halfway through the final turn, the unimaginable happened. Jasper slipped, and we were crashing to the ground. The milliseconds of the fall seemed to last forever. As we landed, my left leg was under Jasper. He struggled mightily to get back onto his feet, but to no avail. Each movement he made, more intense pain coursed through my leg. Though it seemed forever, mom, Mark and Trish appeared in a flash. Mark got Jasper back on his feet and away. Wanting to see how Jasper was, mom made me stay on ground. She instructed the EMTs to immobilize my leg and place me on a backboard. During the ambulance ride to University Hospital, I kept asking about Jasper. Mom said Mark was caring for him, and would do his best.

Luckily, I only had a broken leg and a lot of bruising. I stayed in the hospital for three days, mostly for observation and tests. Mark and Trish visited everyday while I was there, and I asked how Jasper was doing. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” mom began, “we had to put him down.” Mark added, “His left front leg was badly damaged, the injury very bad.” Crying hard, I said something about not wanting to see Mark and Trish ever again. I knew mom apologized to them in the hallway. They understood it wasn’t the easiest news to hear. All I understood was how unfair life could be.

The cast came off after six weeks. A few weeks of physical therapy. School started again. My grades slipped, a lot. I didn’t allow myself to think about horses. After the parent-teacher meeting that fall, mom had enough. Talk about tough love, she was giving it. “It’s time you quit your wallowing,” she said. Mom packed up all of my riding gear, boots and spurs included. The riding certificates and photos, off the wall. “You are not to think of horses, or any kind of fun. I want to see your nose, your focus, in your school work, Missy. I want to see improvement fast. If life was fair and easy, we wouldn’t be able to see and appreciate the gems of life.”

By the end of the second quarter, in mid-January 2005, my grades had returned to where they should have been. The talk about getting back on the horse was just that – talk. Plainly, my confidence with horses was gone. My riding skill couldn’t be trusted. The hole in my heart was wide and deep. Then, there were those awful, awful words, “I don’t want to see you ever again.” Even if I apologized, I knew Mark and Trish wouldn’t take me back. Grandma said I needed to make things right. “You’d be surprised how forgiving people are,” she said. “They’ll take you back, I’m sure.” They were the same words mom had been telling me for weeks.

Summer had arrived again. On the first weekend, much to my surprise, we drove out to the “country”. RRC had grown. Four horse barns now. The few outbuildings were still there. Mark and Trish’s home, along with a double-wide serving as their office space. “Tara, you are here to take care of some business,” mom said. We walked into the office and asked the volunteer receptionist if we could see Mark or Trish. After a few minutes, we were shown into Mark’s office. Trish was there too. Leaving his office were two young riders; the girls smiled politely as they walked past. After some prompting from mom, I offered my apology, saying I said some awful things. Trish asked if I wanted to ride again. Though my instinct was to say yes, I said I wasn’t ready. “When you’re ready, we’d be glad to have you back again,” Trish said. Mark, he was more difficult to read. “I didn’t convince him,” I said to myself.

During that summer, we went back to RRC three or four more times. Instead of watching the barrel racers practice, I watched the hunter/jumpers. They were so elegant in jumping their horses. I became enamored with them. It was like poetry in motion. On the last visit, Megan came over to talk with mom and me. She had noticed us watching each time. Megan introduced herself, asking if I was a rider. I said not so much anymore. Though she wanted to ask why, Megan left it alone. She pointed in the direction of two girls with Trish. “See, Deborah and Elizabeth, over there, they are loaded with talent. They ride like seasoned juniors. Lots of blue and red ribbons between the two of them.” Megan then pointed at the far end of the practice ring. “That’s Sarah. A very polished rider, the closest we have to a professional equestrian.” I asked Megan about herself. “I’m an okay rider. Occasionally, I’ll win here, win there,” was her reply. She left out the part of the many ribbons she had won, and an unexpected win at a grand prix event two weeks earlier. “Gotta get back to practice. I hope you get back to riding,” Megan said before she rode off to rejoin the others.

We walked back to the car. Instead of taking the direct path to the parking lot, we took the path towards the horse barns. It was the long way to the parking lot and I could pretty much guess why we came this way. Mom knew I had a total loss of confidence when it came to riding and horses. She hoped our walk through the barns would create a spark. In one barn, we came across a young gray poking its head out from a stall. She was a 16-month old yearling. Mom stopped to stroke her neck while I scratched her under the chin. “It says she’s for sale,” mom said. “Hope she finds a good home.” When we got home, I asked if the gray would indeed find a good home. I would hope so was her reply. It would be horrible if she didn’t. Besides, she had a most beautiful name. Brie.

The next weekend, we were back at the RRC. “It’s time you start riding again,” mom told me. “I saw the gleam in your eye, Tara.” Though I was ready to protest, saying I wasn’t ready, mom said again I was ready to ride. “It’s in your eyes, and they don’t lie.” We walked into the office, with mom saying we were here to see Mark or Trish. Megan was there also, waiting for her practice schedule. “Nice to see you again. It must mean you’re ready to ride again. Cool.” I sort of gave mom a look. Megan covered her mouth, like as if she let out a big secret. With schedule in hand, she quickly left the office as we headed into Trish’s office. “Your mom is right. You have the gleam in your eye back.” Trish proceeded to go through the outline of my practice schedule.

It was good to be back in the saddle again. I gave myself permission to be a rider again.

Tara and Cameron after taking the lead on the 1.35M course in Iowa (Aug 2014)

 

About the author

Tara Scott Westin is a junior attending the University of Colorado. Her degree studies is concentrated in the field of biology, specifically microbiology. She graduated with honors from St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Colorado Springs in 2012.

A highly-regarded rider, she has won multiple blue ribbons and other placement ribbons as a member of the Rustler Riding Club with her horses, Brie, Cameron and Candace (Happy Girl). In 2006, she was named Comeback Rider of the Year – the only non-competitive rider in Rustler Riding Club history to win this award.

 

Making of A Champion –

Other installment of this series: